When I first read the excerpts from the essay posted above, I couldn’t help but unwillingly agree. I knew somehow, it wasn’t right, but a compelling argument was made and at first I couldn’t really argue against it. But that feeling of wrongness remained and that was enough to make me think some more. And that eventually gave me the answers I needed.
It’s easy to give in to another person’s narrative when it is well presented. Especially if one doesn’t really try to counter it. But make no mistake: What’s happening here is what Aes Sedai do best: Twist the truth by carefully selecting the facts to present and the way they are presented to make them suggest that which suits their agenda. To make that clear, I will go through the excerpts presented above and present an alternate viewpoint which can just as easily be defended. I do not by any means intend this viewpoint to be exhaustive, but rather want to incite the reader to think for themself and search for holes the presented argumentation.
Before I get to that tough, let me just tell you what I see here: Someone who believes themselves to be wronged and desperately looks for proof where there is none. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t deny that females and males are not always treated the same in modern society, nor that sexual preferences that are were not originally intended by biology are not always treated well. I happen to know individuals who have to struggle with these difficulties and count them among my friends. But that does not mean that everything the world has in store for them is a conspiracy against them!
Now, to the actual counterargument part. Let’s start with this:
Channeling is where the theme of gender essentialism is most explicit; no man can hope to channel saidar, save in situations where he is assisted by a female channeler, and vice versa. The description of channeling is described in great detail; saidin is a “storm” that men must “seize” in order to use; saidar a “river” to be “embraced.” The connotations are not un-sexual: men work magic by being aggressive and dominant, women by being passive and submissive.
This certainly paints an interesting picture. Now let me draw a different one: The division between saidin and saidar means that neither man nor woman can harness the true potential of the One Power on their own. They are reliant on each other to do that. Whether or not that is objectively a good thing is impossible to tell, but I (subjectively) find it nice that both have to work together to unlock their full strength.
As for differences in channeling the two halves of the One Power, channeling saidar is never described as being passive or submissive. Much more, it is described as surrendering, not because the channeler’s will is broken, or they have lost hope. No, to channel saidar, one must surrender of one’s own, free volition and out of trust. And that is a very difficult thing to do. Yet failure to do so would just as inevitably spell one’s doom as a misstep while channeling saidin.
Try to remember how often you have completely and utterly surrendered all control over your fate to someone or something else. Have you even ever done that? Without keeping at least a teenie-tinsy shred of control for yourself after all? And if you think you did, how did you feel? Don’t tell me it was easy, or I’ll call you a liar.
Of course that does in no way mean that channeling saidin is any easier. That constant fight for control against the raging inferno that is saidin, where even the tiniest of misstep would be your doom, is not for the milk-hearted wetlander (weak-hearted) either. It is neither easier, nor harder than channeling saidar. The difficulty merely lies elsewhere.
Now, if the producers are afraid of people thinking that the way of channeling saidar is in someway belittling females, countering that is as easy as flamin’ emphasizing the difficulty of it by explicitly (if they don’t trust the wits of their viewers) or implicitly (if they do trust them) calling out the point which I just raised. And for the record that is how I have always seen channeling saidar. Not for a second did it occur to me that it be any easier that channeling saidin, nor that it be “submitting” or being “passive”.
The walls of gender and sexuality in The Wheel of Time are many spans high; lesbians and bisexual women are extremely rare (and their sexuality is almost always ambiguous, as with Aes Sedai “pillow-friends”), and out of a literal cast of thousands, I counted exactly one (very minor) male character who is explicitly gay.
The fallacy here is twofold: First, trying to force the presence of characters with nonconventional sexual preferences or identities in a limited cast of characters does in no way reflect reality. Taken from this Wikipedia article, there is a grand total of 2782 named characters. This Wikipedia article states that 3.8% of the US population are LGBT. One should also keep in mind that the ‘T’ in “LGBT” stands for “Transgender”, which does not apply to the world of The Wheel of Time, since it is neither medically possible, nor with the One Power. Transgenders make up 0.6% out of those 3.8%, which leaves 3.2%. Taking the cast number and this percentage together, that yields 89 (rounded) LGBTs.
But keep in mind that 2782 are named character. That includes, for example Almen. Remember Almen? He was an apple farmer we saw once in EoTW giving Rand and Mat a lift in his and and once at the beginning of ToM when Rands descends form dragonmount. And there’s many more like him that have a name, but no extensive role. Almen, for example appears on about 10 pages out of 11,308.
So, let’s narrow that down a little. I estimate about 300 character (I couldn’t find a source, but feel free to find one or count yourself if you wish, I’d be interested in adding concrete numbers to this argument if possible) with a enough “screen time” that their sexual preferences might become known. So let’s apply the 3.2% to those: That’s 10 (9.6 to be precise) characters. Well it’s not 0… But let’s keep in mind that most sane individuals don’t go around proclaiming their sexual deeds out of the top of their lungs to everyone who would listen (or not listen), so it’s still possible they are there, but just unnoticed.
But, if you want to cling to that number, then here’s where the second fallacy I mentioned comes into play. Before I go into that though, let me just mention the above reasoning can be applied to any work of fiction with a far less extensive cast that has received similar criticism in the past.
The second fallacy here is applying modern standards to a world that is clearly of medieval inspiration. The correct way of judging this would therefore be to apply medieval standards. Let’s look back to the middle ages… How many openly LGBTs are known? The answer is (nearly) none. Of course, I do not doubt that there were LGBTs around. But here’s the big reveal: They repressed it and hid it. Shocker! To the outside world, they were just like anyone else, maybe with a strange quirk here or there, but nothing too obvious. So, 0% recognizable LGBT time 300 character with enough screen time to notice equals 0 discernible LGBTs. The rest of the 10 are still there, you just have no way of telling they’re LGBT.
Of course, an author could choose to explicitly ignore those facts, thereby making his world more appealing to LGBT groups at the expense of making less consistent, but that is entirely at their discretion and subject to artistic freedom. It follows that an author or work of fiction cannot objectively be judged for ignoring or not ignoring the reality.
The purpose of this essay is to bemoan the gender stereotypes that Robert Jordan consciously and unapologetically employed. I hope to analyze and compare the treatment, by the narrative, of Jordan’s male and female characters.
A microcosm may be found in the Forsaken, the thirteen most powerful and favored servants of the Dark One. They are more or less evenly divided by gender (eight male, five female). There is a clear difference between the fates of the male and female Forsaken; the men are typically killed instantly, and honorably, struck down in combat by the forces of Light. The Dark One grants them new lives and second chances whenever possible. In contrast, the women are subjected to cruel torture, humiliation, rape, and enslavement, intended to be seen as karmic justice for their evil doings (the fates of Graendal and Semirhage are particularly “ironic”). It is expected that in their fall from power, they will lose control of their own bodies and even their own minds.
The Forsaken’s fate is the direct result of their actions. Those who were foolish enough to stubbornly stay and fight to the death despite a very real risk of that death being their own paid the price by dying. Those who chose to surrender or flee to live and fight another day paid the price by being punished by the Dark One. Women get their second chances as much as men and when they fail again, they pay the price for repeated failure. Both, men and women. To prove that, let’s have a look at the 13 Forsaken and their fates:
WARNING: The following obviously contains spoilers. You might want to skip if you haven’t finished the series.
Demandred: Largely avoided direct confrontation with the forces of light until the Tarmon Gaidon.
Fate: Died profanely by sword at the hands of Al’Lan Mandragoran. He thought he could win, yet failed and paid the price.
Second Chance: None. The Dark One was defeated before it could come to that.
Rahvin: Fought Rand in Caemlyn.
Fate: Balefired. He thought, he could defeat Rand, yet failed (Thanks to Nynaeve’s intervention) and paid the ultimate price.
Second Chance: None. He was balefired.
Aginor / Osan’gar: Fought Rand at the Eye of the World.
Fate: Killed in Battle. He thought Rand would be easy pray since he was inexperienced and failed.
Second Chance: Reincarnated with the average, unremarkable appearance of a Farmer. He has always HATED being unremarkable.
Fate: Killed by Elza Penfell at Shadar Logoth during the cleansing. He intended to assassinate Rand from the shadows by was spotted and killed instead. Subsequently punished by the Dark One instead of being reincarnated a third time.
Asmodean: Fought Rand over control of the Chodan Kal’s access key at Rhuidean.
Fate: Lost the fight. Surrendered to Rand instead of further resisting thereby saving his life. He paid the price for this by being forced deeper into betrayal by teaching Rand to channel properly. Eventually killed by Graendal.
Second Chance: None. Punished by the Dark One for his betrayal instead.
Ishamael / Moridin: Fought Rand at Falme & later at the bore.
Fate: Killed with a power wrought sword by Rand. He chose to fight, lost and paid the price.
Second Chance: Seeking the nothingness he hoped the Dark Ones victory would be bring, he fervently supported him and was named Nae’blis for it. He fought Rand again at the bore in an attempt to stop him from resealing the bore.
Fate: Failed to stop Rand from resealing the bore. He paid the price for this failure by dying in Rand’s place. Punished by not achieving the absolving nothingness, which he so desperately sought.
Lanfear / Cyndane: Quite openly following her own agenda instead of obeying the Dark One’s wishes.
Fate: Killed by Moridin after being captured by the Eelfinn thanks to Moiraine’s sacrifice. Wished to be stronger in the One Power than any Aes Sedai. She paid the price for her actions as her wish was fulfilled by the Eelfinn. Since she was already stronger than any living Aes Sedai, the Eelfinn fed off of her ability to channel, weakening her until she was barely stronger than the strongest living Aes Sedai.
Second Chance: Reincarnated in beautiful body, yet falling short of her original one. Also mind-trapped to force her to obey Moridin & the Dark One from then on (since she failed to do that in the past).
Fate: Supposedly tortured by the Dark One, but actually an act to earn Rand’s sympathy. Failed and subsequently tried compelling Perrin into killing Rand. Failed and killed by Perrin while she was in Tel’aran’rhiod in the flesh and can therefore not be reborn or reincarneted.
Semirhage: Tried to place a domination band (male a’dam) twice.
Fate: Tried to trick Rand (by maquerading as the Daughter of Nine Moons) and capture him with a domination band, but failed. Captured and subsequently questioned by Cadsuane Sedai. I suspect this questioning is what the essay’s author wishes to present as ‘cruel’ and ‘humiliating’. It should be pointed out that Cadsuane merely treated her like she treats anyone (regardless of gender): Like an unruly child. While being treated like a normal human being instead of an awe-inspiring figure of legend may have been humiliating to Semirhage, it is not objectively humiliating to anyone but her.
Second Chance: Freed by Shaidar Haran and given a domination ban again.
Fate: Catpured Rand with a domination band and tried controlling him. Balefired by Rand with the True Power.
Mesaana: Schemes in the White Tower and attempts to defeat Egwene in Tel’aran’rhiod.
Fate: Ignored the Dark One’s orders and punished by Shaidar Haran. It is admittedly suggested, yet never explicitly stated, that she was raped by Shaidar Haran. This is, however the only case of it.
Second Chance: Returned to the White Tower after her punishment.
Fate: Confronted Egwene in Tel’aran’rhiod and tried to chage. Egwene resisted being changed, while Mesaana continued exerting her will. Eventually her mind shattered under the strain she placed on it.
Belthamel / Aran’gar: Fought Rand at the Eye of the World.
Fate: Killed by the Green Man.
Second Chance: Reincarnated in female body as Aran’gar. He used to be a womanizer and not think very highly of women. Strangely enough, he grew to enjoy his new form, though that was certainly not the Dark One’s intention.
Fate: Killed by balefire at Natrin’s Barrow after having been trapped there by Graendal.
Be’lal: Fought Rand at the Stone of Tear.
Fate: Killed with balefire by Moiraine.
Second Chance: None. He was balefired.
Moghedien: Plots in the shadows.
Fate: Captured by Nighnaeve, Elayne, and Birgitte with an a’dam in Tel’aran’rhiod. Subsquently forced to teach them long-lost knowledge of the One Power. Treated surprisingly well, despite being hidden as a servant.
Second Chance: Freed by Aran’gar.
Fate: Captured as a damane by the Seanchan during the Last Battle.
Sammael: Took control of Illian and marshalled it’s armies against Rand.
Fate: Fought Rand at Shadar Logoth and was killed there by Mashadar.
Second Chance: None. According to Robert Jordan, this death is permanent.
Graendal / Hessalam: Plots in the shadows and fails repeatedly.
Fate: Killed by Moridin after numerous failures (far more than other Forsaken before being punished).
Second Chance: Reincarneted in a hideous body as Hessalam. She used to highly value beauty. Got around her appearance this by compelling other to find her disfigurment beautiful.
Fate: Victim to her own compulsion weave intended for Aviendha.
Obviously characters which were no longer relevant to the story (for example because the were not reincarnated again) are being punished off screen, since said punishment is as irrelevant to the story as the characters themselves. Doing otherwise would contribute nothing to the story and merely be an example of bad storytelling.
We see, that while male Forsaken more often foolishly engage in dangerous battles for nothing but personal gain, revenge or to prove they are strong/better than Lews Therin Telamon (nothing honorable about that, despite what the author of the essay suggests…) and lose, whereas female Forsaken more often wisely choose to retreat and fight another day, yet both pay the logical price for their failure considering their actions. Furthermore, retreating / surrendering is not exclusive to female Forsaken, as Asmodean chose to do so as well. He could easily have attempted to grab a weapon and assassinate Rand of fight his way free, but he chose not too, probably realizing (unlike other male Forsaken) that it would most likely result in his death.
In any case their fates are logical consequences of their actions and would likely by the same if they were of the other gender. The only possible exception to this might be Rand having qualms about killing or even endangering women and possible sparing some of his earlier opponents had they been female. This, however, in no way misogynistic, but much rather a result of his own personal brand of madness from the taint and the experience of slaughtering his own wife as Lew Therin. He is, however fully aware that women are just as dangerous as men and that he is being irrational, he just can’t help it.
Another thing we see is that male Forsaken often die by balefire (far more often than female Forsaken), which can be argued to be worse than torture since it removes its victims from the pattern entirely, erasing their existence. They don’t “die”, yet have their souls continue and eventually reborn. Their very soul “ceases to be”. There is no rebirth from that. Now whether or not a permanent end to one’s existence is worse than torture eventually followed by rebirth is admittedly up for debate. I am certain some would prefer to be balefired. But since this is so subjective, there is no way to compare the two objectively. Though in the end,whatever one decides is worse, balefire is by no means an “easy way out”, but a terrible fate in its own right, just as is torture by the Dark One.
It also bears noting that all reincarnated Forsaken got a new body, which is in someway ironic considering their personalities. And ‘all’ means ‘all’, male and female alike. Moridin is the only exception here due to his fervent support of the Dark One’s agenda, which is independent from his gender. Now, let’s see about numbers… 3 out of 8 male Forsaken got a second chance and were reincarnated. One the female side, there’s a whopping 5 out of 5 who got a second chance, with 3 of them having been reincarnated. If one were to point fingers at this point, it would seem like the female Forsaken get preferred treatment…
But let’s go on: Death by balefire/Mashadar/in Tel’aran’rhiod, 4 of 8 men, 2 of 5 women. Punished by the Dark One: 2 of 8 men, 1 of 5 women. Of special note are Moridin, to whom the worst possible punishment was failure, which is exactly what happened to him, as well Mesaana and Graendal, who (in a way) punished themselves. Mesaana destroyed her mind by forcing against Egwene’s will until her own mind shattered under the strain, while Graendal was hit by her own compulsion weave. The reader is free to make what they want of these numbers, but I see no advantage for either side here.
As a recapitulation of all this: The essay mentions the male Forsaken’s deaths to be quick and honorable. While foolishness abounds in those death, there is no trace of honor, and while it is true that they often die quickly, the essay fails to mention that those deaths are often far worse than punishment by the Dark One, since it is more often than not permanent removal from the pattern. Furthermore, cruel torture, humiliation, rape, and enslavement are mentioned for the female Forsaken. While not entirely untrue, this has been shown to be a gross overstatement in most cases. Lastly the essay points out the Dark One’s irony in handing out his second chances to the female Forsaken. That is entirely true, however the essay’s author neglects to mention that this applies equally to male Forsaken.
Once again, if the producers were to fear a backlash from misguided viewers, it would most likely be sufficient to emphasize how the male Forsaken’s fates are just as bad, if not worse than the female Forsaken’s. The facts are already there, they just need to be highlighted for the less observant viewers.
This pattern extends throughout the story and its prodigious cast of characters. A plethora of magical instruments exist for the purposes of enslaving female channelers, but not male channelers. One of these, the Oath Rod, can be used to render a female channeler incapable of violating a promise she has sworn upon it. Galina Casban, a cartoonishly evil lesbian Aes Sedai and secret “Darkfriend” is compelled under the pain of torture to swear away her free will on the Oath Rod and serve the Shaido Aiel. The last we see of Galina is her internal monologue in Knife of Dreams, when she despairs of escape and realizes that she will be a slave for the rest of her life.
More common is the a’dam, a literal leash and collar, mentioned above as a tool of the Seanchan Empire, a culture built on absolutism, abasement, and slavery. When the Seanchan invade the continent that is the setting of the narrative, they round up all women capable of channeling and collar them with a’dam. The effects of the device are explained in detail: the holder of the leash “trains” the prisoner by praising her when she obeys orders, and magically administering pain when she does not. The Seanchan treat their slaves like animals, giving them “pet” slave names, and after enough years in servitude, the collared women eventually come to accept their new identity. Many of the powerful, proud Aes Sedai are enslaved in this manner, and tortured until they come to fear freedom and love their masters. Most notable of these is Elaida, the sincere yet incompetent and megalomaniacal usurper of the office of Amyrlin Seat, the leader of the Aes Sedai. In The Gathering Storm, she is abducted and collared by Seanchan agents. We see her again in Towers of Midnight, abasing herself before the Seanchan Empress, answering to her slave name, and divulging the Aes Sedai’s secrets eagerly to avoid further torture.
While it is true that instruments of the One Power exist to enslave female channelers, the author of the essay once again neglects to mention that most of those also work on male channelers or have a variant intended for male channelers. This is done either consciously or unconsciously to convey the impression of an imbalance that does not exist.
WARNING: More spoilers ahead. Be careful if you haven’t finished the books.
The mentioned Oath Rod, for example works on any channeler of either gender, not only on women. While it is true that it is most prominently used by the Aes Sedai (thus women) on themselves, it should be noted that choose to do this of their own free volition. The a’dam being the other tool is indeed designed explicitly for female channelers to control another female channeler’s weilding of the One Power. However, there also exists a male variation of these, called the domination band, which incidentally is far more insidious than the female a’dam as it does not only have the same abilities as the female a’dam, but on top of that also allows one’s body to be controlled as evidenced when Semirhage captured Rand with one and uses the domitation band to force him to choke Min. Also note that those are two devices, which does not qualify as a “plethora of magical instruments”.
At this point, one might point out that, while these devices do work on men or a version targeted to men exists, they are far less prominent in the series. This is however due to fact that historically there have been for all intents and purposes no male channelers since the Breaking on account of them going mad from the taint on saidin. These men need to be put down to protect others from them, which can either be done quickly and (mostly) painlessly by directly killing them. The other way is the slow and painful one through gentling. This happens to be the preferred way, since the Aes Sedai can tell themselves that they didn’t murder the poor fellow, they merely sentenced him to death, which far easier to reationalize away as necessity. In any case slowly going mad until one is either killed or gentled (from which death eventually follows too) is terrible fate in its own right.
As for the example of Galina… First, she was not lesbian (at least not that I was aware of). If someone knows of a scene in the books that suggests she is, please point me to it, otherwise I will maintain that she was heterosexual. As previously pointed out, the Oath Rod would have worked on any channeler and anyone of them could have been “compelled under the pain of torture to swear away [their] free will on the Oath Rod”. It just so happens that at the time, female channelers were much more present and therefore far more likely to be found by the Shaido than men, again, because male channelers were hunted down on account of being doomed to go mad and break the world.
Since a similar case can be made for Elaida, it would be redundant to spell it out here, especially since this post is long enough as it is.
Male antagonists in The Wheel of Time suffer no such indignities. In addition to the Forsaken, General Turan and High Lord Turak of the Seanchan are slain in combat. Couladin, Rand’s rival and leader of the Shaido Aiel, is also killed in battle. Pedron Niall, the cunning commander of the fanatical, Templar-esque Whitecloaks, is assassinated by a subordinate, the even more fanatical Eamon Valda, who usurps power and is later killed in a duel. The scheming King Galldrian of Cairhien is also assassinated. “Slayer”, another enigmatic minion of the Dark One, is killed fighting Perrin Aybara (one of the primary protagonists). They are defeated, but not humiliated; they are killed at the height of their power, not after they have lost it, been cast down, and humbled. Asmodean, the only real exception to this trend, does not suffer in captivity; Rand often berates him but does not torture him, even allowing him a modest parole and a privileged position in his entourage.
Yet not a single example has been given that women in a similar position of power who are killed by the forced of the Light are not also killed at the height of their power.
From this perspective, the world of The Wheel of Time must be taken as a tale of misogynistic wish-fulfillment, not as a narrative of fantasy adventure in which women enjoy equality or even superiority to men.
Given the above thorough debunking and the fact that the essay’s author uses the handle “FeministWarrior” with the signature “Feminism is my sword and shield”, it likely that they belong the group of irrationally radical feminists often unkindly labelled “FemiNazis” by some. But really, don’t call anyone like that, that’s really uncalled for. Nevertheless, this begs the question whether seeing The Wheel of Time as a “tale of misogynistic wish-fulfillment” is not wish-fulfillment on the part of the essay’s author.
I should also mention that I am not in the habit of writing posts like this, which might reflect in my style or argumentation. Nevertheless, the author of that essay managed to push all the wrong buttons and chase my down one hell of a rabbit hole. A rabbit hole that just wasted about a day’s worth of my time with sorting out my thoughts, researching facts and writing it all up. In that sense, one might say that while they have not won the argument, they may well have won the battle.
PS: For those less familiar with formal English, the use of the plural (they, them, etc.) is also a polite way to refer to someone in a gender neutral way. This is often nicer than constantly using he/she, him/her, etc. and does not imply that there’s more than one.